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Friday, January 05, 2007


Useful advice

A few years ago, I was at an old-English-grads college dinner. There were suits and ties, multiple courses, and after-dinner speakers, one of whom was the novelist and screenwriter William Nicholson.

After the speeches were over and people were milling around, quite a few people introduced themselves to him, and, as often happens with successful writers, told him that they were aspiring writers themselves. (I didn't, as I figured it's a difficult remark to answer, but later a friend introduced me to him as such and he was very nice to me.) However, to one young man, who had just finished his first novel and was looking for an agent, he said something very interesting:

'Well, may you have moderate success with it.'

The reason he wished the guy moderate success, he explained, was that it's not good for writers to get too big too early. You don't have the experience to deal with it. Make it big with your third book, and you've earned it, you've been around the business, you know from experience that you can write more than one book, you've worked out how you function and how the world around you functions. You can stand on your own two feet. Make it big with your first piece, and you don't have that experience to support you when things get intense. You aren't sure if you can pull it off again. You get knocked sideways.

Probably all first novelists, me included, are liable to greet this advice with an inner 'Well, but I'd be prepared to risk the disadvantages of immediate success...', but the man has a point.

Part of it has to do with writing a second novel. Writing a first one, no one's watching you except friends and family; they may be disappointed if it doesn't sell, but they're on your side. Writing a second one, the eyes of the world are on you, or at least, the eyes of a few thousand people who don't know you personally and wouldn't cry if a truck hit you. You're in an excellent position to make a fool of yourself if your next book doesn't go well. And the more successful your first novel has, the harder it is to measure up. We've all seen reviews that go 'After the initial super-success of his/her first book, X's second book is rather disappointing...' - quite possibly for a book that's actually very good, but just failed to top the first one. Second Novel Fear is bad for your writing anyway, and it increases proportionally with how much attention you're going to have to live down based on the first one. You can freeze in the headlights.

There's also the issue of how to deal with public promotions, which success bring. From personal experience, which isn't of superstardom but includes some interviews and other puffs, attention can be unnerving. Writers are often shy, and if you're shy, an interview can feel more like an exam than anything else. It takes practice. The more you know who you are, the less likely you are to either feel 'I'm incredibly important and can do no wrong!' or 'Man, they're going to find me out, I just know it!'

Then there's the element of what parents tend to call 'character building'. Success can be inflating. I had offers from four different agencies inside of a fortnight when I first trollied my book around town. It was dazzling, and I could feel it starting to go to my head. I thought I was all fancy. But then, of course, I got a few publisher rejections. This was good for me. If I'd had nothing but 'yes of course' all the way down the line, I could easily have lost sight of the need to work and get on with people. For one thing, when the first 'no' hasn't happened yet, it's nebulously frightening. Once you've got it over with, you're better prepared for the next one - and there are going to be some more 'no's at some point. And if there aren't, if life goes completely smoothly because everyone thinks you're just so all-fired great, then that's not good for you as a writer either. Life is bumpy for most people, and you need to remember how it feels to be most people if you're going to remain a good character writer. Arrogance, hidden insecurity and confused empathy aren't good for novelists.

Of course, everyone who's got anywhere tends to get a Stockholm syndrome attachment to the difficulties they had on the way. It's self-protective: if it was to turn out that it actually was possible for you to succeed without the setbacks, then the setbacks will have been pointless suffering, and nobody likes that. But to deal with writing, you need to feel like a grown-up, and the more experience you've had, the better.

Publishing a first novel is the start of something as well as the culmination. You have to keep going.

Great advice. Wonderful. Can't think of anything else to add, just really good to hear. Thanks Kit.
Great advice. Thanks for sharing.
The agent I am working with actually has this exact approach...emphasizing the steady growth of a fledgling writing career, rather than trying to make that huge blockbuster sale right off the bat. I really appreciate her insight into that, and thank you, Kit, for reminding us of this.

I also see that line "May you have moderate success" as one of those blessing/curse phrases, along the same concept as the Chinese pronouncement- "May you live in interesting times."

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